Kipling as foodie

by Diane Duane


Over the last couple of months I’ve been rereading Rudyard Kipling‘s Kim, on and off. (This is part of a longstanding self-challenge to read everything that the man has ever written — a goal that would challenge even an ambitious reader who had nothing else to do whatsoever. Well, you hit more if you’re shooting at the sun than if you’re just firing into the underbrush.) And during this rereading, I’ve started  to become conscious of a hidden truth:

Kipling was a foodie.

This is probably a subject on which whole theses could be based, but briefly: there’s a lot more reference to food in Kim alone than what a conscientious writer will normally insert into a narrative as as part of  a well-built background. And the pattern repeats across other works.

But in Kim in particular, every now and then something foodie-ish pops out unusually strongly. For example: after a traumatic series of intelligence-oriented escapades upcountry, Kim has come back down to the Plains in bad shape and needs some rest and recovery.  He and the Tibetan lama whom he’s been serving as “disciple” arrive at the home of a very retired and cantankerous rani, an old acquaintance, and the Sahiba takes Kim in hand. She first sees him through a long therapeutic massage, and then —

Then she fed him, and the house spun to her clamour. She caused fowls to be slain; she sent for vegetables, and the sober, slow-thinking gardener, nigh as old as she, sweated for it; she took spices, and milk, and onion, with little fish from the brooks — anon limes for sherbets, fat quails from the pits, then chicken-livers upon a skewer, with sliced ginger between…


This is way more than offhand background material. It is both skilled character exposition and a shameless appeal to the senses, and I want to go to her house for dinner. Oh, Rudyard, you food tease. Where are the recipes?!

And there’s more.  Just from this book:

…his mouth watered for mutton stewed with butter and cabbages, for rice speckled with strong scented cardamoms, for the saffron-tinted rice, garlic and onions, and the forbidden greasy sweetness of the bazars…


“…meet us again under the big railway bridge, and for the sake of all the Gods of our Punjab, bring food — curry, pulses, cakes fried in fat, and sweetmeats. Specially sweetmeats….”


(a song sung to entertain a small child:) “This is a handful of cardamoms, | This is a lump of ghee: | This is millet and chilies and rice, | A supper for thee and me!”


(on a begging-bowl of rice:)  “A little curry is good, and a fried cake, and a morsel of conserve would please him, I think.” … [the vendor] filled it… with good steaming vegetable curry, clapped a fried cake atop, and a morsel of clarified butter on the cake, dabbed a lump of sour tamarind conserve at the side…


And this is only a sampling of the yummy bits in Kim. Lots more can be said about this whole subject (and probably will be) at a later date. But right now those chicken livers and ginger are on my mind, and dammit, we’re flat out of quail…

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